Signage and road markings "played no small part” in the tragic death of a Co Down GAA player who was killed on the A1 dual carriageway, a court heard today.
Newry Crown Court heard how a combination of factors — the two defendants not knowing the road or its topography, the poor signage and overgrown grass verge on what Judge Paul Ramsey QC said was possibly “the busiest road in NI” — led to the tragic death of 27-year-old Karl Heaney on May 23, 2018.
“It will be noted,” said prosecuting QC Samuel Magee, that Mr Heaney’s grieving mum had campaigned with politicians and “other interested parties in an attempt to limit the possibility of a similar tragedy ever visiting the door of another mother”.
Opening the Crown case against 33-year-old Shelagh McMahon and Army Captain Donald Hughes (35), Mr Magee outlined how having never met before, the pair shared a meal at the Halfway House restaurant and were driving in convoy back to her home in Carlingford when they unwittingly drove down the A1 carriageway the wrong way.
Neither of them were familiar with the road so, with Hughes following behind McMahon, the pair approached the junction of the A1 and the Halfway Road and turned right, making the “gravely careless error” of believing they were on a normal road whereas in fact, they were driving the wrong way in the fast lane of the A1.
Mr Magee explained that at the junction, there was a small ‘dual carriageway’ plate below the give way sign and while it was in “a relatively poor condition” it could be seen in headlights but the camber of the road, coupled with an overgrown grass verge, “would not have made the far carriageway obvious in night-time conditions”.
“To the right of the junction are two no entry signs which were not independently illuminated and not readily visible at night-time to those positioned at the junction. There is no street lighting at the junction and road studs on the A1 would not have been illuminated by a vehicle turning on to the carriageway in the wrong direction. There was no ‘keep left’ sign or bollard at the junction,” said the senior barrister.
Mr Heaney, he told the court, was heading to see his fiancée Ciara having trained with Newry Mitchels GAC and called at his parents’ home to see his sister before she flew back to Australia the following day when the fatal impact occurred.
Mr Magee said it can be deduced that faced with the oncoming McMahon in his lane, Mr Heaney took evasive action to avoid her, leading his car to go into a clockwise spin as Hughes followed behind.
Mr Heaney’s Ford Fusion was “broadside” across the two lanes when the Kia being driven by Hughes crashed into the front of the passenger side which “increased the rotation” of the Ford Fusion and caused another impact and his car to roll, coming to rest on the driver's side a short distance away.
The court heard that although “the exact speeds of the vehicles cannot be fully determined”, there was an estimate that both had been travelling around 60 mph with “nothing to suggest any of the vehicles were travelling at excessive speed.”
Drivers who came on the collision described a “traumatic scene of chaos” and Mr Magee said in the force of the impact the “engine and gear box of Mr Heaney’s Ford had been excised from the vehicle...and were lying in the middle of the road”.
An off duty nurse and a consultant anaesthetist arrived at the scene and carried out initial CPR until Mr Heaney was cut from the wreckage and rushed to RVH in a “breathing but critical condition”.
Sadly, Mr Magee said he “had suffered non survivable injuries to his head and chest” and having never regained consciousness, Mr Heaney died at 4.35am on May 24, 2018.
“Pathologist, Peter Ingram, concluded that he was a healthy young man who had died from a head injury but who had also sustained injuries to his pelvis, aorta, chest, diaphragm and chest and abdominal cavities,” said the lawyer.
At the scene, McMahon was so traumatised that she fainted while Hughes was also in a very distressed state.
The pair were arrested and interviewed and later entered guilty pleas to causing the death of the 27-year-old by driving carelessly on the A1 dual carriageway Drumneth on May 23, 2018.
Lodging a plea in mitigation today, Hughes’ defence QC Frank O’Donoghue said the Army Captain “will have to carry with him the burden of his responsibilities through his entire life”.
He highlighted the fact that since the tragedy, “there’s been a political commitment to renew this and other stretches of this particular road...a road that has been in dire need of being updated”.
“It’s probably one of the busiest, if not the busiest road in NI,” said Judge Ramsey and Mr O’Donoghue agreed “absolutely”.
The sentiments of remorse and regret were echoed by Greg Berry QC, on behalf of McMahon, who was “part and parcel of a tragedy” which claimed the life of a “fine young man”.
“She cannot take back time or turn back the clock even though she earnestly wishes she could,” said Mr Berry.
Freeing the defendants on bail, Judge Ramsey said he wanted to reflect on the submissions, reports and sentencing authorities and listed the sentencing hearing for June 7.